Narendra Modi Reorients India’s Past and Future

April 19, 2024 Topic: India Region: Asia Tags: IndiaNarendra ModiHinduismElectionsU.S.-India Relations

Narendra Modi Reorients India’s Past and Future

The Indian prime minister’s enthusiasm for India’s past is not a rupture or divergence with the interests and values of the United States or Europe. On the contrary, it may forge a deeper historical foundation for strategic alignment.

Americans and Europeans rightly draw wisdom and inspiration from their shared Greek and Roman heritage. Similarly, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi favors embracing ancient India’s rich intellectual and philosophical chronicles to inform and shape the present and future of his country. He prefers the Sanskrit name (Bharat) over the Greek (India) when referring to the subcontinent. The word, both in style and substance, brings India’s ancient roots to the fore and reorients its future narrative.

The country’s future weighs heavily on the public’s mind. Today, April 19, India goes to the polls. The greatest electoral exercise in the world, conducted over a six-week period, will entail nearly a billion people exercising their ballot. If Modi wins his third consecutive term, as is currently expected, he will bestride India’s past and future.

Modi’s reach to ancient literature as the intellectual and spiritual foundation for a modern Bharat does not in itself represent a rupture or divergence of his nation’s shared interests and values with that of the United States or Europe. On the contrary, it has the makings of forging a deeper historical foundation for strategic alignment. Greater exhortations and reference to ancient texts inextricably elevate shared Indo-European history, philosophy, and cross-cultural currents—not least in the shared linguistic roots of Indo-European Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin languages. Greek and Hindu mythology are remarkably comparable in extolling human vices and virtues in their many gods—a point boldly manifested in the Iliad and the Mahabharata, those notable epics so foundational to understanding their respective civilizations. Likewise, shared philosophical foundations and experiences result in uncanny parallels between Machiavelli’s Prince and Kautilya’s Arthashastra, though the latter predates the former by a few centuries.

In more recent times, India’s external affairs minister has recently authored two books referring to the Mahabharat and Ramayan, respectively, as intellectual inspirations for India’s foreign policy. As the host of the G20 in 2023, India also advanced the slogan “vasudhaiva kutumbakam,” or “world family”. Ancient historical inspirations and references will likely accelerate in Modi’s expected third term.

Modi’s expected victory later this year will put him on par in terms of longevity and impact with India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Unlike Nehru or his descendants, however, Modi favors a more indigenous and assertive India. Nehru declined former U.S. Secretary of State John Dulles’ offer of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council if it came at the cost of China. Modi is cut from a different cloth—one of his highest priorities is to obtain that demurred permanent seat.

In his third term, Modi could potentially overhaul national symbols and symbolism. India’s constitution states, “India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States.” In official acts, the Modi administration favors referring to the nation as “Bharat” over “India.” It may also favor the song of India’s independence, Vande Mataram, over the present national anthem, Jana Gana Mana. The latter was penned by R. Tagore in 1911, the year of the Delhi Durbar, in which King George V was crowned “Emperor of India.” Accordingly, the song was rarely sung during the freedom struggle and was only adopted as the national anthem in 1950. Vande Mataram, penned in the 1870s by another Bengali, B. K. Chattopadhyay, is more akin to La Marseillaise of India’s fight for independence. Modi, given his propensity for currency changes, may also represent more Hindu icons on bank notes—Ashoka, Shivaji, Maharana Pratap, Sardar Patel, etc. He may also add Akbar and Sufi saints to the list as well.

Though unfamiliar to the West, India’s altering symbolism does not signal a nation less democratic, less secular, or less tolerant. On the contrary, it could establish more stable foundations for its piety and acceptance of different cultures, faiths, and outlook. It may also celebrate earlier antecedents for its democratic leanings than the derivatives bequeathed by the British colonial rule.

Present Hindu-Muslim tensions in India do not stem from its ancient or even medieval history but from the relatively recent past. In the aftermath of the 1857 rebellion by Indian soldiers—both Hindus and Muslims—the British embarked on a deliberate policy of division, dissension, and disharmony between the two communities to ensure that they did not again unite in opposition to British rule. This worked until the early twentieth century, when Mahatma Gandhi, a politically astute leader of the masses, could unify the Hindu and Muslim communities in the cause of independence. He did so by explicitly invoking religion (embracing the Khilafat movement in support of the last Ottoman sultan as an Islamic caliph) in the political struggle for India’s independence against principled and vociferous opposition by Mohammed Jinnah, who ironically went on to be the founding father of Pakistan. This Gandhi-orchestrated Hindu-Muslim unity did not survive independence and resulted in the partition of India and Pakistan. The Nehru government accorded special legal concessions to reassure remaining Indian Muslims, which at that time exceeded Pakistan’s total population. Seven decades later, the Modi government has been pursuing a national Uniform Civil Code—a set of laws for all Indians, irrespective of their religion, including Muslims.

Overall, India’s Hindu-Muslim tensions can be understood as comparable to Jewish-Arab ones in Israel and Palestine. Yet being an avowed Jewish state has not diminished Israel’s shared values and interests with that of America or Europe. The American Supreme Court’s dismantling of affirmative action in the universities does not in itself make the United States a less tolerant nation. Similarly, India is no less tolerant if called Bharat nor less democratic if greater references to ancient texts inform its national narrative.

Indian democracy is far from a perfect union, and no democracy should be averse or immune to strong and sustained critiques. Modi deserves criticism for his heavy-handedness and lack of forethought on several fronts. Informed and reasoned critiques would both educate Western readership and motivate Indian readers to take corrective action. Unfortunately, indolent tropes, hyperbole, and all too frequent cataclysmic references often substitute for substance. Modi’s January 22 Ram Temple inauguration was widely hailed across the nation as a remarkable accomplishment—including, notably, by Modi skeptics in India. Western journalists, however, universally panned it as a divisive and marginalizing event because a mosque that was claimed to have been built over an earlier Hindu temple was moved in the process. In contrast, the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates welcomed Modi to inaugurate a temple in Abu Dhabi. More assiduous inquiry should precede the all too often charged assertions in the Western press, lest the uniformed journalists perpetuate a manufactured cultural chasm.

On the economic front, Modi, in his expected third term, is projected to oversee India’s transformation into the world’s third-largest economy. His administration will likely strive to close the economic and military gap with its main adversary, China, competing with it to lead the Global South. At the same time, Modi, while pursuing a muscular foreign policy, may concurrently reorient the nation’s intellectual and philosophical foundations to its ancient roots. The United States and Europe should welcome and embrace this evolution to strengthen shared interests and values. The two, with clear-eyed realism, should prioritize their core interests and develop a new vocabulary and framework to engage Bharat as a like-minded and motivated partner.

Ancient history offers Bharat strong metal for a present-day anchor to a free and open Indo-Pacific and a bridge between that region and the Mediterranean-Atlantic world. Vedavyasa, the chronicler of great Indo-European texts—including Mahābhārata, Vedas, and Puranas, among others—is also reputed to be an early cartographer of the first world map indicating the span of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. His legacy offers timely inspiration for Bharat, the United States, Europe, and other allies’ effort to re-establish the historical commercial, cultural, and trade connections of the Indo-Pacific to the Greater Middle East and across to Europe with tributaries to Africa, the Caucuses, and Central Asia.

Kaush Arha is President of the Free & Open Indo-Pacific Forum and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue.

Image: YashSD /